by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Opening night is always eagerly awaited, but the excitement spirals considerably if it happens that your opponent is a premier program in your sport.
For the Elk River-Zimmerman hockey team, that opponent was Edina, which nabbed its eighth state championship last March.
And the Elks were up to the challenge, handing the Hornets their first loss 3-1 at a packed Elk River Arena on Saturday evening.
“It was very exciting,” said Elk junior Ben Johnson, who delivered the first two goals, “having the big crowd and the intensity.”
The Hornets, whose 3-0 record coming into the game included a 3-1 conquest of Wayzata, were ranked first by both Let’s Play Hockey and the Star-Tribune in pre-season listings, with Wayzata at No. 4 by LPH and No. 2 by the Strib. The Elks were at No. 8 on both lists.
Even so, the Elks, who lost to Edina 4-1 last year, had to keep it cool, said goalie MacLean Berglove.
“We prepared like it was any other team,” said Berglove. “We worked on our game, and didn’t focus much on them … We know they have good forwards like (Cullen) Monson, (Matt) Malmquist, and (Miquel) Fidler, and their top defender is Tyler Nanne. We all played our game, and had had solid defense.”
Johnson scored twice in the second period, matching his goal total of last year, and Jake Jaremko made it 3-1 in the third period, while Berglove stopped 31 shots. The Elks had a 46-32 edge in shots on goal including 20-4 in the third period. Edina’s Andrew Rohkohl made 43 stops.
A big crowd ringed the ice, including many alums, players from other teams, and one of the state’s most popular sports figures, Lou Nanne, former North Star and longtime state tournament TV analyst, whose grandson is a Hornet.
The first period ended 0-0 with the Elks surviving one precarious Edina power play late in the period where Berglove wound up on his back after rejecting a flurry of three shots, then took a missile off the body.
“There were a couple times in the game where the puck got in tight and they kept banging away,” said Berglove. “My defense blocked some shots and cleaned up the garbage.”
Johnson scored on a close-range rebound 14 seconds after the second period face-off on a breakaway with Peter Jones.
“Peter was breaking wide to the right and shot,” said Johnson, “and I got a nice rebound right on my stick and carried it to the net.”
The Elks killed another penalty shortly after, but Edina knotted the score at 5:13 of the period on a rebound where neither Berglove nor the defenders could see where the puck was before it was too late. Edina’s Munson swooped past the net and tapped in his seventh goal of the season. Kieffer Bellows assisted.
Johnson regained the lead 15:05 when the puck again wound up on his stick, this time when a Hornet defender poked it away from another Elk but right toward Johnson, who fired from about 20 feet, just inside the post to the goalie’s left. Dylan Bouten and Alex Schwab assisted.
The Elks dominated the third period and got the insurance goal on some creativity by Jaremko. The junior forward launched a shoulder-high shot from the side which a Hornet defender tried to grab but only deflected and it sailed into the far side of the net, at 12:06.
Asked what was tough about Edina, Johnson said, “Their forecheck was really hard, and they really know how to bottle it up on our zone. It’s hard to get the puck out but we did a good job, our D, breaking it out.”
The Elks tried to get Edina to be the opponent when ERHS hosts Hockey Day in Minnesota in January but the Hornets declined the invitation to play an outdoor game. (The Elks will face Stillwater.) But Edina will get a chance for payback on Dec. 20 on their ice, Braemar Arena, during the Edina Classic which the Elks attend every year.
The game featured a pair of former North Star teammates coaching against each other — Gordie Roberts of the Elks and Curt Giles of the Hornets, who skated together for most of the 1980′s. Giles spent 12 of his 14 NHL seasons with the North Stars in two stints. Roberts spent eight of his 15 NHL seasons with the North Stars.
The Elks will be idle for another week before starting conference play against Andover next Saturday, 7 p.m.